To be born a woman of color in this world is a difficult thing; as cumulatively we occupy the bottom of the race and class hierarchy. We are unique in that we have no institutionalized other. Our lives are often filled with violence and poverty. For every Oprah Winfrey or Tyra Banks there are millions for whom each breath is a struggle. For those of us that are negotiating multiple areas of stigmatization life can be that much more difficult.
I first heard about Duanna Johnson when I read about an assault against her by the Memphis police department. As they savagely struck her, they did not see her humanity, and they certainly did not see her struggles. These two white men, empowered by our society, saw a transgender black prostitute that they viewed as beneath them.
Even when medical aid was finally called, they treated her abusers, leaving her to bleed from an open wound on her head. As a prostitute Duanna had added a spoiled identity status to her already marginalized social position.
Being a transgender woman and hearing someone call you a he/she as they repeatedly strike you is meant to further remind you that are less than nothing. This is a message that our so-called black leadership internalized, as the voices of Jesse Jackson and camera-whore Al Sharpton were strangely silent.
One would believe that police brutality would be enough to cause anger in the black community, but few care about a drug addicted black trangender prostitute enough to sound the alarm. Though she was just as innocent as Sean Bell who met his death at the hands of police, her social status was enough for people to justify ignoring her.
Duanna did not take this assault peacefully and was in the middle of suing the department for 1.3 million, when she was found dead on November 10. This was yet another sad end to a tragic life. Duanna was so poor that she was forced to pay her neighbours 20 dollars a month to plug in an extension cord in their home. She counted on the kindness of those around her for a place to sleep and wash because she had no running water in her home.
Duanna Johnson is the face of many that we have chosen to ignore because of our inhumane desire to privilege some bodies above others. Trans women daily must daily negotiate cisexual privilege, which often leads to high rates of violence. Duanna now joins women like Angie Zapata, Victoria Arellano, Amanda Milan and Alexis King on the list of trans women who have met their end through violence.
The Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (GPAC) detailed the deaths of 51 people under the age of 30 who may have been murdered because of their gender non-conformity in 2007. According to a 2005 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which analyzed incidents targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT) in fifteen US cities and regions, 213 transgender people suffered anti-transgender offenses in 2004. The incidents included assaults, harassment and vandalism.
A simple visit to Remembering Our Dead, gives a name to each person who has died because of bigotry and hate.
While it is not yet certain whether or not Duanna was the victim of a hate crime, due to the rampant trans hate in our society it makes it a very likely possibility. We are already aware of at least one incident of violence against her because of her trans status, it is not much of a leap to assume that her death is somehow related.
Women already constitute a vulnerable class within society, and when one is poor, black, and transgender, one can become a “legitimate” target of violence. Each day, when a trans woman leaves the safety of her home she faces the threat of violence because we refuse to release our cisexual privilege long enough to see their shared humanity with us.
What difference does it make to us as individuals if someone is transcending gender? Their blood is the same shade of red, and their tears carry the same pain.
Gender is not the simple binary that we have been taught. There are people that will always be outside of modernist understanding of gender, and as such we need to begin to understand that human experience is full of multiplicities.
What and who we value should be based on the content of their character and not how they identify. Gender will never be as simple as the sex to which we are born and until we accept that, more women like Duanna will face pain filled lives followed by violent deaths.
Rest in Peace Duanna Johnson, may you have the solace in death that you were never granted in life.